The End of Animal Farming? A Q&A with Jacy Reese

Jacy Reese with goatJacy Reese wants to end animal farming. You can tell, because that is the title of his new book: The End of Animal Farming. Reese is a committed “effective altruist,” which means that he spends his time thinking about what actions will most efficiently help as many sentient creatures as possible and eliminate the most pain in the world. It is kind of as if Spock from Star Trek put his super-logical mind to the problem of increasing happiness in the universe. Reese’s rational mind has led him to campaign for the total end of raising animals for food, since many of them suffer in the process. Many are kept confined and indoors their whole lives in crowded conditions, are bred to such extremes that their own bodies cause them pain, and are slaughtered to fill tacos and round out a box of Hamburger Helper. Reese’s book lays out the technological and social changes that he says are already underway which could make our millennia-long practice of animal farming end by roughly 2100.

Q: In your book, you present data that suggests that many people are uncomfortable with the lives led by animals in the current food system, but they eat meat anyway. Why?

A: As much as I don’t want to admit it, It is tough—or it feels very difficult— to go vegetarian or vegan in today’s society. You have to go to the vegan section of the grocery store. And socially it is seen as a weird thing to do. Whereas having the moral views is easier; it doesn’t require any actual behavioral change. But the moral views aren’t totally meaningless. Voters in California just passed Proposition 12, which bans very small cages for many farm animals because of their views.

Q: So how do you think animal farming will end?

A: We make it extremely easy, affordable and normal to eat non-animal products. It starts with innovation in food technology to create really good alternatives and collective changes in behavior that flow from system reforms like Proposition 12. If cage-free eggs are all that is available, you don’t have to go to a different aisle, you don’t have to seek out new brands, you don’t have to look up any labels. And socially, if everybody’s doing it, you don’t have to be an outcast in any sense. It just becomes a lot easier.

More fundamentally, we expand our moral circle to include animals. Throughout human history, social movements and technological progress have widened the circle of beings for whom we extend moral consideration. We’ve gone from only caring for our immediate clans and villages to nation states and extending out to all races, genders, classes, and nationalities—to a global community. There is still a lot of progress to go on those fronts, but the next frontier is the 100 billion animals in the food system today. Including them is one step in a larger social struggle.

Q: Some meat alternatives have been around for a long time. In your book, you explain that tofu has been seen as a meat replacement since 965. But you spend a lot of pages touring through the companies that are currently developing new ersatz meats, eggs, and dairy. Cell-cultured meat is still in the lab, but some high-tech plant-based options are already commercially available. These do seem to be boom times for animal-free “meats.” What is your favorite?

A:  I like Field Roast. It is a brand that produces plant-based protein. It is a good, hearty, tasty center-of-the-plate protein dish, but it is not going to trick anyone. But as someone who hasn’t eaten meat in quite a while, I’m not really looking for that animal flesh flavor. What I recommend people try is the new “bleeding” plant-based burgers, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger. They have that wow factor. The Impossible Burger even has heme in it, which is the protein in animal blood. If someone has been vegetarian for a while, it can even be a little unsettling!

Q: I’ve tried the Impossible Burger and I was pretty impressed. But the kind of upscale joints where you can get it often also offer “humanely raised” meat. What’s your take on eating happy farm animals who enjoyed life and then died painlessly?

A: I argue that we should focus on welfare reforms. They can be effective not just in reducing suffering today but in building capacity and momentum for longterm change. But over the course of years of researching this issue I’ve come to have more issues with co-called “humane” or “sustainable” animal agriculture. Ultimately, I think animals shouldn’t be farmed at all.

Q: But won’t that mean that domesticated species would go extinct? In some cases, their wild ancestors are already extinct, as in the case of cattle. We don’t have any more aurochs! Free-roaming populations of many domesticated animals exist, but they are often targeted for culling as “invasive” pests so we can’t count on them persisting forever.

A: Animals matter because they are sentient beings. I don’t care as much about species or ecosystems, intrinsically. I think that when it comes to artificial species: cows, chickens, pigs—these animals who look very little like their natural ancestors—even people who care about biodiversity don’t care about them as much. We don’t think about them as part of nature’s majesty. And some farm animals suffer no matter how well you care for them because of how they have been bred. Chickens topple under their own weight; they have heart attacks. That doesn’t seem like a great existence. I think it would be fine to have them go away entirely.

cover of the end of animal farmingQ: What about hunting for meat? Many communities still rely on hunting to feed their families, and others have deep cultural connections with the practice. Do you want to ban hunting?

A: I don’t take particular issue in the book or elsewhere with hunting. I think it is definitely a much trickier ethical question, especially when you are talking about people who hunt for sustenance or for tradition and culture. I do think that in the long run, in my utopia, if we wouldn’t allow a culture to hunt or inflict harm on humans, I don’t think we should do it for other sentient beings. In terms of priority, I think animal farming should be the focus. I think factory farming makes sense as even a narrower target for more moderate advocates.

Q: Tell me more about these moderate advocates. Is there room in your movement for people who aren’t ready to go vegan but are intrigued by these better fake meats, are interested in reducing their meat consumption, and want to increase the welfare of farmed animals?

A: I think the main drivers of change in this stage of the movement are going to be omnivores. You want a big tent in any social movement. A lot of these companies that are emerging aren’t run by vegans. You see a lot of people getting involved because they see a technological opportunity. Some people are motivated by moral outrage. But I interviewed Alex Lorestani at Geltor, which makes synthetic collagen, and he told me he was motivated by “technical outrage.” He just thought it was silly that we get meat, dairy, and eggs and other products from animal husbandry, the same way we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It is just so inefficient.

Q: And the environmental impacts can be enormous.

A: My focus is on sentience, but there are environmental and health arguments for ending animal farming too.

Q: So what would you advise people to do who want to help hasten the end of animal farming?

A: You can lobby your employer to have a meatless day at the cafeteria. Or just try out some of these new products to demonstrate market demand. We need early adopters. You can volunteer with Hen Heroes or Fast Action Network at the Humane League to do micro-volunteering tasks. You don’t have to be vegan to help. I don’t want people to burned out on these issues. It has been a movement of sacrifice and extremes. And that is not healthy. We are not going to see the end of animal farming due to one-by-one diet change. We are going to see it due to a social and institutional and technological push.

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